THE setting was unusual. Younis Khan was seated on a bar stool in the garden terrace of a plush hotel in Chiang Mai, waiting for lunch to be served. He was famished. But then he began talking. And the lunch was all but forgotten.
What had him so immersed was football. You can’t help but notice the passion the Pakistan cricket legend has for football. His eyes light up as he talks about Argentina and Diego Maradona. The contours of his face change as he speaks about Arsenal. Younis has always been this animated, but as he divulges about his association with the beautiful game one can’t help but feel that if he hadn’t been a cricketer, he’d have been a footballer.
He says the same. “In a parallel universe, I’d have certainly been a footballer,” Younis said. “I’ve always played a lot of football. As part of my training regimen, I used to play football daily for two hours and I certainly would’ve taken it up as a career if cricket hadn’t come along.”
But cricket did come along. And Younis retired after becoming the first Pakistan batsman to break the 10,000-run barrier in Test cricket. As captain, his greatest achievement was leading Pakistan to the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 title in England.
But this interview with Dawn wasn’t about Younis the cricketer. The 40-year-old was in Chiang Mai as part of a 16-member delegation put together by Coca Cola to bring the FIFA World Cup Trophy to Pakistan and he revealed how football inspired him during key moments of his cricketing career.
“There were so many times when just watching football helped overcoming the pain of defeat,” he stated. “If we’d lost a match [with the Pakistan team] and there was a football game on in the night, we’d all watch it together and it was all good banter between the two sets of supporters. It helped in team bonding and we’d all be fired up for the next cricket match.”
There was also that infamous training ground incident with Inzamam-ul-Haq during the 2003 ICC World Cup while playing football. Pakistan were to play Zimbabwe in a must-win final group game when Inzamam and Younis squared off.
“Inzi bhai didn’t have the best of World Cups and he wasn’t in the best of the moods during that training session when I dribbled past him,” Younis remembered. “He felt as if I was mocking him and he got angry. And so there was a small confrontation but with the media present there it became a big issue. We later held a news conference to clarify there was nothing. It happens in football. Tempers flare because it is so engaging.”
Then, there was Maradona. Younis terms the Argentine great as his inspiration. Having always followed Maradona’s career closely, he feels his career resonates with that of the 1986 FIFA World Cup winner.
“Maradona came back from a ban, I came back from a ban,” tells Younis. But that’s where the similarities end. Maradona was never the same force after he came back from a 15-month drugs ban in 1992 and even though he showed some flashes of brilliance, another 15-month drugs ban at the 1994 FIFA World Cup effectively ended his international career. Younis, though, was a force revitalized after his three-month ban for disciplinary reasons in 2010.
“Even though the ban was lifted after three months, it took me six months to get back into the team.” Younis recalled. “That’s when I looked at Maradona even more closely. Maradona had worked towards reviving his career [after the first drugs ban]. He even seemed to be getting back to his best and if it wasn’t for the second drugs ban, he might’ve been a star of the 1994 FIFA World Cup as well and maybe it would’ve been a different story. It showed he was only human after all and that we all commit mistakes. For me, Maradona will always be my idol and I learnt from him how to give all for my country and how to go back to the top.”
Younis retired at the top of his game too. And in sensational style with Pakistan winning a last over thriller against the West Indies in his final Test. Younis’ input was key in securing that victory, telling spinner Yasir Shah to pitch the ball outside the off-stump to Shannon Gabriel for the final West Indies wicket. Like Maradona’s pass to Jorge Burruchaga for Argentina’s winner in the 1986 World Cup final against Germany?
“There are so many times when I relate a footballing moment to a cricketing one,” he said. “In the back of your mind you’re trying to relate that final wicket to that extra-time winner.”
There was also something about how he lifted the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 trophy. The pose struck a chord with the enduring image of Maradona lifting the 1986 FIFA World Cup Trophy, both hands clasped on the base of the trophy with the upper body slightly jerking backwards.
“In my head, I was trying to strike the same pose,” Younis said with a wide grin.
Yet despite being such a huge fan of Maradona, Younis doesn’t support any of the clubs the Argentine played for. Younis is a Gunner through and through. And he tells an interesting story how he became an Arsenal fan.
“It was at an event in 2001-02 when someone asked me which football team I supported. As Arsenal was the top Premier League team at that time, I instinctively said it was Arsenal. It was at that time that Rashid bhai [former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif] came up to me and advised I should start watching and following the club because maybe the next time I’d be asked about the club so I should at least know something about that,” Younis tells with a laugh. “And so I began supporting Arsenal and finally in 2004 [while playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire], I bought the club jersey bearing the name of [Arsenal and France legend] Thierry Henry.”
While following the changing fortunes of Arsenal over the years, Younis has also kept a close eye on the dwindling fortunes of the Pakistan football team. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) was banned in October last year by FIFA for ‘third-party interference’. It came after FIFA regarded a move by the Lahore High Court (LHC) to resolve a controversial PFF presidential poll in 2015 as a threat to the independence of the country’s football governing body.
“[FIFA ban] is sad because it’s affecting the players as the national team hasn’t played for almost three years,” he said, advising the stakeholders to resolve the matter soon for the betterment of the game.
Younis forged close ties with George Kottan when the Hungarian was Pakistan’s football coach from 2009-10 and he has been regularly keeping track of the team’s activities. “We became good friends,” Younis remembered. “I used to have long discussions with George on how we can take the game forward, how we could use cricket to further the game of football in Pakistan.”
That didn’t go far though. With Kottan leaving the job, the link was broken. Times have changed though. Neighbouring India has since used the power of cricket to promote their glitzy franchise-based football league. And with more time on his hands following his retirement, Younis wants to invest some promoting the other game he loves.
“I really want to do that now,” he proclaimed. As a first step, he is pushing his departmental side United Bank Limited (UBL) to establish a football facility. “I’ve always admired how the Dubai Sports City has facilities for all sports and that’s the model I’d like to follow here in Pakistan.”
Then he wants to use the power of football to reach out to the far-flung areas of the country and bring the whole nation together. “Football is a crowd puller in so many parts of the country where cricket isn’t even as popular,” he says. “We just need to streamline football activities and make them inclusive.”
Widely recognised as a cricketing legend, Younis now wants to make his mark as a football man. He’s ready to take the first step. His eyes narrowed as he looked into the distance and he signed off saying: “We need to do something about football in Pakistan. We really need to do something about it. It just breaks my heart to see where we are as a footballing nation.”